Judge rejects plea agreement Hooper to return to court on manslaughter charges

by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi

LANCASTER — A plea agreement which would have sent John Randolph “Rand” Hooper of Richmond to jail for one year on an involuntary manslaughter charge was rejected Thursday, December 19, by Judge Herbert Hewitt in Lancaster County Circuit Court.

Hooper was charged with two felonies in the 2017 death of his friend Graham McCormick, 31, of Atlanta whose body was found in Carter Creek. McCormick’s death was ruled by the state medical examiner as drowning with blunt-force trauma as a contributing factor. Lancaster County Sheriff’s Department investigators found that McCormick died as a result of a boating accident.

Hooper pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and failure to render aid in connection with the accident and his attorneys had reached an agreement with Lancaster County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jan Smith for a 14-year sentence with all but one year suspended.

Judge Hewitt had postponed action on the agreement in August pending a pre-sentencing report.

He told the crowded courtroom Thursday that the defendant had two previous driving under the influence charges but “this time when he was driving the vehicle a death occurred.”

He continued to say in this instance the defendant “took no care to find the person who was in the boat with him,” and it “appears he made no effort” to remain there to search, call 911 or bring authorities there to save his best friend.

“That to me comes from a cold, malignant heart,” said Judge Hewitt, adding that he hoped Hooper’s heart was not cold and malignant when alcohol was not involved.

“To leave the scene and make no effort to find this person is overwhelming to the court,” he said.

Judge Hewitt stressed although there are no sentencing guidelines specific to such a case, he found “the plea agreement inappropriate” and the “time to be served inappropriate.”

Hooper had the option to plead guilty and accept a sentence from Judge Hewitt or withdraw his guilty plea and go before another judge.

Hooper opted to withdraw his plea and will return to Lancaster County Circuit Court at 9 a.m. Friday, January 24, at which time a new trial date will be scheduled.

Newly elected Lancaster County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tony Spencer will be prosecuting the case. Spencer will take office January 1.

“The judicial branch of the government has integrity,” said the victim’s brother Gordon McCormick following Judge Hewitt’s ruling. McCormick held back tears, saying, “We have all the confidence in the world that what happens next will be the right thing.”

McCormick’s family has been very vocal over the past six months in regard to the leniency of the plea agreement and filed a motion in July to have Smith removed as the prosecutor. The motion was denied.

“We are ready for trial and hope justice will prevail,” said Lt. Tim Self, investigator with the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Department.

Investigators with the case have also been vocal and expressed dissatisfaction with the plea agreement.

McCormick’s parents, J. Burke McCormick and Sallie T. Graham, filed a civil suit against Hooper in 2017 and five months later were awarded $4 million in a settlement.